The Signal and the Noise on Dissertation Embargoes

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Audrey Truschke over at Dissertation Reviews recently posted up a lengthy essay to junior scholars worried about the impact of letting their dissertations roam about, unfettered, in the wild. And various people seem to think it’s something we should all pay attention to. Well-written it is, and chock-full of data as well. The crux of Truscke’s argument (though you should go read it yourself): newly minted PhDs who worry about letting their research live in open-access land while they furiously try to turn their dissertation into a first book are wasting their mental time and energy. There’s no reason to worry. Unfortunately, little persuasive proof is marshaled in defense of this position, while simultaneously–and here’s the kicker–nothing is done whatsoever to show that embargoing one’s dissertation is detrimental to one’s status as a junior scholar.

Much of her discussion will be familiar to those of us who follow this topic with some measure of regularity. Truschke’s ace-in-the-hole here is that she spoke to “university press editors” themselves to ascertain how they operate–both in theory and praxis–from first books. To be fair she manages to glean some useful information from pressing her interviewees. We discover, for instance, that this lingering sense of “it’s already out there so folks won’t buy it” plagues university press editors just like the rest of us dialed into this conversation. This itself remains a potent data point. We learn some specific bits about how the dissertation and first book are very different animals (“cut the literature review, reduce the notes by one-third, spend less time directly quoting other scholars, write better, have a punchier and broader argument, and make the introduction and conclusion more dynamic”). We learn also a little about the behind-the-scenes operations of the book contract itself, which is interesting but really not all that relevant.

The problem with Truschke’s piece is that she manages to minimize those data that are cause for concern, ignore any kind of cost-benefit analysis, fails to critically analyze the other side of the equation, and in general mucks up this conversation further with a bunch of white noise.

For instance, she cites a 2011 study:

“a mere seven percent of university press editors said they would refuse to consider a book based on a thesis that had been made previously available in an electronic repository . . . [though] there is good reason to question whether even that seven percent actually act as they claim.”

I disagree vehemently with the word “mere” in there. 7% is plenty high enough in this current academic climate (just as it was when I first read this study three years ago) to be worried about, acted upon or not. If I can do something as little as click a button and dramatically increase my chances at a book contract with 7% of editors with nothing on the debit side of that balance sheet, and you think I won’t do it, you have an ill-informed sense of the pressures I currently face in the academic job market. But let’s go along with Truschke for a moment, and entertain her larger point: that even if these editors say they don’t consider open-access dissertations for first books, in practice they often won’t look for it/compare them. At this moment, even if I concede she’s right in ninety percent of cases, that still means I can increase my chances with .7% very easily. I’ve done a lot more for a lot less.

Secondly, her evidence to the contrary ends up boiling down to: these editors told me they don’t bother looking at the online version of a then-dissertation and now-manuscript, because it would be a waste of time. They’d rather trust their own judgment that what sits in front of them remains substantially changed from its original form. Something about years of experience that the revision process from both ends will substantially change any work (certainly true to an extent, I’m sure). But that’s where Truschke stops, and ultimately its what’s left unsaid that jumps off the page. There’s a prominent negative space which puts the reader in the difficult position of concluding either dissertations and first books actually are so dissimilar that it really would be a waste of time (something in History, especially, we pretty much know not to be true in a significant enough percentage to make this claim), or that university press editors are too [insert uncomfortable adjective here] to make use of a resource that would directly and without question assist them in their job of sifting through stacks of book proposals (the preponderance of) which have all been polished enough to get the job done (something I refuse to believe).

Truschke goes on to offer a couple other reasons embargoing your dissertation is a waste of time.

There’s something in here about a two-year embargo being the norm anyway which isn’t enough time to produce a monograph so why bother? To which I say “Interesting. Love to see your data there.” My university allowed any period you could name, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an historian who wants to go up for a TT position unable/unwilling to revise and submit a proposal in four to six years (which is the real norm in practice, as far as I am aware). Plus, you can always extend the embargo.

There’s a long tangential section about the current economic climate of library acquisitions, which doesn’t share anything new until it gets to Truschke’s discussion of a company called YPB which apparently flags first books that began their lives as dissertations. We don’t really get any of the data required to assess just how significant this is, however: not how prevalent YPB’s presence is in the total academic publishing pie, not how they know a book is a revised dissertation, not how many university libraries use/know about/care about their existence. This is a throwaway section for me (though it’s also important, I think, to note that Wikipedia lists a hundred and two university presses in the United States, eight of which serve as the basis for her article. Truschke says she interviewed big ones. Considering the difference between Duke UP (120 titles and 40 journals annually) and Kent State UP (30-35 titles annually) is so disparate, I might expect market forces to act on them differently: this study has some data on p. 372 regarding this).

Equally unhelpful is this little gem towards the end:

“[S]ome university press editors that are concerned with an online dissertation adversely affecting book sales favor takedowns over embargoes . . . Ten years ago, Harvey said, taking down the dissertation from ProQuest was required for authors publishing with Stanford University Press . . .  I wonder, however, if many junior scholars underestimate their ability to disagree with the press publishing their book and perhaps feel pressured to take down the dissertation when they would prefer not to do so.”

The issue here isn’t what to do once you’ve got a UP book contract. Embargoes are enacted to increase our chances on the front end–to get the offer in the first place. Plus, if Harvey wants to publish my first book but our dealbreaker is that I want my dissertation to remain online, I’m not going to be all that concerned about finding another home for the manuscript in the near future. Which Harvey clearly understands: “These days, however, the press concedes that authors hold varying views, and they will not insist on a takedown.”

The larger problem here, of course, is the murkiness of the whole enterprise of academic publishing. There has yet to be (to my knowledge) any robust statistical evaluation of the interaction between the open-access phenomenon and university press contracts that moves beyond “lets talk to the UP editors/directors/someone ‘in the know.'” Let alone one that is able to account for all the other forces acting in the field (which Truschke mentions at different times)–the contraction of library budgets, the reductions in and changing criteria for TT hirings at universities, piracy, etc., etc.

In the end, then, here’s the clearest formulation of Truschke’s argument: embargoing your dissertation doesn’t seem, in most of the cases university press editors were willing to share with me so I could write this piece about a practice that directly comments upon their access to the very material that would allow them to do their job to its fullest, to have any negative or positive benefits. Because even when seven percent tell you it matters whether your dissertation is freely available, their not really telling the truth. Except for right now, to me.

What we are left with is either a) statistical evidence like the kind Truschke (or this study she cites) is using, which mostly doesn’t tell us anything all that useful for those considering embargoing their dissertations, and b) anecdotal evidence like the kind Truschke offers which says not to worry. Well, you have your anecdotal evidence. I have my own. And until someone comes along with some more persuasive data I’ll keep my embargo, thank you very much.

 

 

On One Instance Where Open-Access Stinks, and Digitally Embargoing Humanities Dissertations

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Rarely will you find me on the side of the fence that argues against open-access. In fact, during the course of my long and illustrious life, this is the first. And yet it’s an excellent example of how anyone who argues for the wholesale beneficence (or maleficence) of something or another is completely full of crap or woefully misinformed. Which until recently included me when it came to mandated digital publication of and open-access to dissertations.

But let’s back up a second.

What is this crazy penmonkey talking about so early on a Tuesday morning and shouldn’t he better get to it in the first paragraph if he doesn’t want to lose my interest? What’s that?! A Buzzfeed article on the 38 Things You Need to Know Right Now Oh God Please Click Me Fulfillment Lies Beyond?

Let’s start with a basic proposition.  PhD students (and newly minted PhDs) in the humanities already live a precarious existence. They are easily one of the most vulnerable populations to have gotten a four-year degree, for many, manymany reasons, despite the hard work they do.

In the good ole’ days, before the interwebz, PhD and MA students finishing their theses and dissertations printed out a couple copies and physically plunked them on the desk of some graduate college librarian, where they were then filed away for eternity. You wanted to read it, you had to physically go to that university library, or request a photocopy. That required time and effort, and it effectively meant that even though anyone could theoretically get ahold of anyone else’s work, in practice it was embargoed by geography and opportunity-cost. Today, the majority of graduate schools prefer (or require) the thesis or dissertation in digital form, and as part of the spirit of open-access, it has evolved to the point where as soon as you upload your work it gets sent off to UMI or someone and, shortly thereafter, made freely available to the rest of the world of scholars. If all this meant was that your brilliance and eloquence would be more easily discoverable by the walled garden of tenure-track academia to which you were trying to gain entry, there’d be no problem. But the reality is that, for those of us in the humanities (especially, though in other realms as well), the fact that your completed work sits out in the wild has increasingly meant that journal editors (less) and university press acquisitions editors (much more) have become increasingly unwilling to pick up contracts for monographs or accept articles for publication.

Why? Because as library costs become increasingly strained, library acquisitions folk themselves (the people who buy the books from the presses, and serve as the majority of the latter’s market base), already able to access your work via the subscription to the dissertation/thesis index they already pay for, have become increasingly unlikely to purchase the book unless it seems to deviate significantly from the original dissertation and/or appears highly original or significant to the discipline. Scholars (the other primary market for academic publishing) act the same way. Why pay twice for something when you can pay once?

The consequences of this process have become worrying enough that the American Historical Association stepped in last summer and strongly suggested all universities adopt a policy that allows graduate students to digitally embargo their work for a certain amount of time. Most TT (tenure-track) positions will require a new faculty member to publish a book within the first 6 years in order to go from Assistant to Associate Prof., and so the knowledge that while you go through the necessary process of revising, rewriting, and adding research your work is protected is not only crucial to a state of mind, but a job. How crucial?

Here’s a good piece from Bill Cronon, former president of the AHA, on the ramifications of mandated open-access of PhD dissertations the humanities:

My graduate students typically spend 5–8 years working on book-length manuscripts that will hopefully get them their first academic job (if that is their goal), and, when published, justify their getting tenure (assuming tenure survives all these changes—a whole different set of questions). My students’ work is very much their own. Unlike the sciences, they are not employed by me to work on grant-funded projects that I oversee as principal investigator. The vast majority never receive federal money, and most never even receive grant support beyond graduate fellowships (mainly for serving as TAs) that generally fall short of meeting basic living requirements. They support themselves mainly by teaching, which is one reason they take longer to complete their degrees than is typically true in the sciences . . . I can’t believe we would ever pass a law requiring nonacademic writers to post online the first draft of their book manuscripts; why would we demand this of newly minted PhDs even before their careers are properly launched?

The evidence is mounting that mandating open-access to dissertations is devastating to new PhDs leaving school with mountains of debt, and their job security is being further threatened by this trend in publishing. Some have argued, weakly as far as I’m concerned, that mandated open-access isn’t all that bad for book contract-seeking scholars. The majority, however, has engaged with the issue cognizant of the real-world ramifications that exist. Cronon, if I may go to him once more, offers the best summation of the range and depth of the problem and the squawks of the naysayers:

This isn’t remotely about dissing online scholarship or defending the book-length monograph as the only legitimate form of historical scholarship. It quite emphatically is not about refusing to share the fruits of historical scholarship for all time to come. It’s about preserving the full range of publishing options for early-career historians and giving them some measure of control over when and how they release their work to the world. As a practicing historian who has worked closely with a fair number of publishers for more than three decades, I can testify that concerns about online dissertations competing with books are very real. Indeed, I’ve had at least one former graduate student whose publisher refused to permit publication of an article in one of our discipline’s most prestigious journals for fear that it might undermine sales of his soon-to-be-published book. Since the publisher threatened to cancel the book contract if the article appeared, I can only imagine what it would have done had the entire dissertation been available online. In another instance, I had to intervene with a government agency to request the removal of an online version of one of my students’ dissertations that had been posted without the student’s permission and that the publisher said would likely jeopardize the book contract if it remained available for free download. I’ve had several editors from distinguished presses tell me (off the record, unsurprisingly) that although they would certainly consider publishing a revised version of a dissertation that had been posted online, the general effect of online posting would be to raise the bar for whether they would look at such a dissertation in the first place or eventually offer it a contract. And I’ve heard of university libraries that now save money by choosing systematically not to purchase university press books based on dissertations that are available online.

There are also many who have taken this as an opportunity to decry the tenure assessment system and agitate for changes in that arena as a solution to the larger problem (of recently minted PhDs as the profession’s most vulnerable population), of which mandatory open-access is but one of many contributing symptoms (though no doubt a significant one). It’s true, the system generally sucks, and more every year. At the same time, while I’m generally for agitation of any kind at any time, in this case it misses the point at the same time it obfuscates the battlefield for those of us who have years of grinding work invested in our monograph. The reality of the matter is that History Departments, representative of others in the Humanities or not, are slow-moving beasts. Whine and complain all you want, but bucking the tenure system in pursuit of some altruistic desire to level the playing field for new PhDs is not how they were built,  nor how they are maintained. Further, experimentation (as any of the proposed plans I’ve seen to shifting to new criteria by which a department can grant tenure will require) requires imagination, flexibility, a willingness to be wrong, and a certain bold come-what-may insouciance that, while demonstrated with flair and joie de vivre in the writing of many, doesn’t really personally describe many historians I’ve ever met. So suggesting change to the tenure-granting process amounts, in the end (to me, at least) like a magnificently naive way to seem to be for our cause whilst at the same time remaining spectacularly and embarrassingly standing on the sidelines.

Unlike my post last week asking the humanities to get their collective shit together, I end this one with some legitimate advice. Check with both your graduate college and department, and see if they require online publishing of the dissertation. If they don’t, great! If they do, get someone on the phone and ask why. And unless that reason’s “Because we offer all graduating PhDs a tenured position at $100,000 a year, with your very own parking spot and rhesus monkey-butler to boot!”, it’s not good enough. Use the literature here to organize a petition in your department and challenge the prevailing ignorance behind the open-access policy for theses and dissertations.

At Oklahoma State University (where I skulk the halls) all theses and dissertations are required to be submitted electronically, after which they are usually released into the wild. A digital embargo is allowed, but requires consent from one’s committee chair, and while the standard options allowed are 6 months to 2 years anecdotal evidence given to me says no requests up to 5 years have been denied. All of this is good news, except the last bit here. Awareness of this problem is so abysmal that the graduate college representative I spoke to said s/he saw only 2 requests this past spring out of 700 applications for graduation. A third of a percent.

Speak with your committee chair and get her or his advice. If s/he doesn’t have a strong opinion, maybe that’s your signal right there to pick a new mentor. Because this is obviously not an issue that’s going to go away, and it’s having a significant enough impact to reverberate across the collective arenas where such issues get discussed on a regular basis. Consider carefully what it means for your job prospects over the next decade before you decide to digitally embargo your dissertation or not. I know I will.